It gives me great pleasure to start with the YA novel Hitler's Canary by Sandi Toksvig, which I discovered through Helen's Book Blog.
This novel is about Nazi-occupied Denmark in World War II and centers around a young boy named Bamse and his family and friends. At the beginning of the occupation, the Danes are seen as rather complacent, almost accepting of their fate, but being viewed by the British and other Allies as "Hitler's Canary" - "he has us in a cage and we just sit and sing any tune he wants" - spurs some into resistance action, including Bamse's older brother Orlando.
Then it becomes evident that Denmark's Jewish population, although small, is going to be targeted just as Hitler and the Nazis have done in the other places they have conquered. This hits more close to home for Bamse, as his best friend is Jewish and several of his mother's colleagues in the theater are also Jewish. Although Bamse knew of their difference in faith, it ultimately did not matter to him or to many other Danish people, because they were all Danish. In a statement to his uncle Johann - a Nazi sympathizer - Bamse asks:
Uncle Johann, if you can't spot them without the yellow star on, then they must just be the same as us. I mean, otherwise you would know them without the star, wouldn't you?
What immediately struck me about this question was how a child could capture such a simple concept so logically -- without overt symbols, how can we identify anyone as being truly different from anyone else?
The story then describes the massive effort of many Danish citizens to get the country's Jews to safety by smuggling them to Sweden. Although a fictional account, the novel is based on stories told to the author by her father, and it is just amazing about the bravery of everyone involved -- young and old, the persecuted and the protected.
As with any story set in wartime, this novel does not have a completely happy ending -- several instances had me reaching for a tissue. Nor does it paint all Germans as bad and all Danes as good. One of the greatest lessons that I think can be taken from this story is that injustice to anyone must not be tolerated:
You must stand up for everyone's right to be who they are - otherwise you may find one day that it is you who is singled out, who is seen as different, and then there will be no one to defend you.
I was drawn to this book not only because of my interest in World War II/Holocaust literature, but also because I am of Danish heritage and I honestly did not know much about Denmark's role in the war.
On a personal note, I did also learn something interesting: Bamse's father spoke about The Order of the Elephant, the highest order of the nobility in Denmark, even though elephants aren't native to Denmark. My grandmother, born in Denmark and recently passed away, collected elephants for most of her life and I never thought to ask her why. I wonder if this was one tie to keep to her native country.
Thank you, Helen, for bringing this book to my attention.